Burqa Wars and Public Policy

In the recent film, The Children of Men (based on the 1992 P.D. James novel), illegal immigrants in a futuristic UK are rounded up and caged like animals. That is one way to deal with the problem of foreigners. A more usual – and humane – approach in the West has been that of multiculturalism and assimilation. But those approaches have not always been hugely successful.

Indeed, the questions about immigration, assimilation and national identity are many. For example, how does a free and democratic nation seek to assimilate various people groups which may not share its core values? While some nations – the US especially comes to mind here – have been very successful as a melting pot, many others have not. The influx of large numbers of Middle-easterners and North Africans into Western Europe is a case in point. Most of these immigrants – mainly Muslims – have never settled very well into their host nations.

As no nation can long survive without a set of commonly-agreed to values and ideals, and without some social cohesion, the problem of opening one’s doors to foreigners while maintaining some kind of national soul or identity is a difficult one.

When France several years ago decided to ban religious symbols and clothing in its schools, there was a mixed reaction. Fred Nile in Australia, for example, thought it was a good thing, forcing Muslims to declare their real allegiances, and so on.

While I concurred with this line of thinking to an extent, I also had my concerns. The truth is, an attack on one religion by a secular state is also an attack on all religions. Thus it is not just Muslim headgear for example that is outlawed in French schools, but Christian crosses as well. Thus the problem is complex and multifaceted.

But certain points can be made. Some groups have managed to maintain their unique identity while living peacefully in a host culture. But quite often, Muslims living in the West have had some difficulties settling in. Christopher Orlet, writing in the April 4, 2007 American Spectator, offers a helpful discussion of these issues.

He begins by citing a case in Montreal, Canada, where an 11-year-old Muslim soccer player was kicked off the field because she was wearing an Islamic headscarf. Interestingly, the referee who kicked her off was a Muslim as well. Uniform regulations and safety issues were given as reasons for this decision.

Predictably, a huge debate ensued, with both sides weighing into the battle. One side shouted racism and Islamophobia, while the other side said there must be limits on what is allowed on the field, and argued that religion and politics must be kept out of sport.

Asks Orlet, “A tempest in a teapot? Perhaps not, since this story can be seen as a microcosm of the larger ideological struggle of identity politics being played out each time Middle East meets West. In the beginning the West proved extraordinarily accommodating. For example: in 1990 a Canadian Sikh member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police won the right to wear a turban with his police uniform. But 9/11 changed that. Since then there have been numerous bans on Islamic headscarves and burqas in public spaces across Western Europe, Canada and Australia. Last year Dutch Prime Minister Rita Verdonk announced a ban on burqas in public places and canceled a meeting with Muslim leaders when one refused to shake hands with her because she was…gasp…a woman.”

Part of the way to understand all this is to explore the issue of such religious/ethnic clothing in more detail. “Lost in this debate is why Muslim women are required to wear the veil. Traditionally Arab men differentiated the virtuous lady from her immoral sister by her dress. The prostitute showed skin, which stirred up the animal lust in the male. The male’s excitability was considered the women’s fault, therefore the female was ordered to keep her body under wraps. In Islamic societies this is deemed preferable to teaching young men to respect women and control their apparently insatiable animal lusts.”

He continues, “Today Muslim girls are told only that their religion demands their unquestioning acceptance of the veil; that they will be beaten if they do not wear it. In other words the concept of the veil is based on a primitive, misogynistic attitude toward the sexes, the antithesis of Western, rational thought, in which the young are encouraged to be skeptical and to question antiquated notions. Is this mindset something the West should accommodate? Or is such accommodation just another instance of creeping Sharia?”

Indeed, accommodation or dhimmitude? “Obviously there are limits to how far a culture should go in accommodating religious customs. Honor killings and widow burning (suttee), would not go over well in the West. The Canadian village of Herouxville recently passed preventative legislation that bans the stoning of women and female circumcision just in case its Muslim immigrants get any ideas of importing their bestial traditions to Canadian soil. If assimilation is the goal, we should certainly allow (if not encourage) veil-wearing Muslim girls to play soccer or to attend public school. Better that than they should be left to attend madrassas run by radical imams. But draw the line when any religious or political class demands the government provide women-only separate but equal hospital wings, swimming pools and pre-natal classes, that pork be removed from public school menus, and that Dante’s Divine Comedy be removed from the school library because of its depiction of Mohammed in hell.”

And many will argue that multiculturalism has not been terribly successful in places like Western Europe. “Of course not everyone agrees that assimilation is a worthy goal, or even that it is likely to succeed. (It has been a colossal failure in France.) After all no one encouraged the Amish to assimilate – so why not leave the Muslims and other religious minorities alone? Then again, the Amish may find American culture decadent, but they have shown little desire to blow up skyscrapers. Nor are they likely to rampage through the streets when someone publishes editorial cartoons of their prophets. Assimilation wouldn’t even be under discussion if Islam were not deemed a threat, and only masks the real issue: that the West has yet to decide whether Islam is a religion of peace – like the Old Order Amish – or a totalitarian ideology.”

Concludes Orlet, “In the end we must hope that all religious minorities will assimilate at least to the point where they accept Western values of equality and separation of church and state. Those who insist on remaining culturally distinct, who wish to remain ghettoized risk becoming radicalized. When 11-year-old Muslim girls want to play soccer with French Canadian girls, it is folly to refuse them no matter what they wear on their heads.”

In this country, the debate over multiculturalism, Australian values, and assimilation continues to bubble along. The questions are not easy, and require clear thinking. But such questions need to be addressed, before the kinds of out and out ethnic and racial warfare as described in The Children of Men become reality here.


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5 Replies to “Burqa Wars and Public Policy”

  1. We seem to spend a great deal of time on contemporary issues without looking at the past. One may ask in the Muslim debate; what has happened to all the Muslims who have come to Australia since the gold rushes of the 1830s and 1840s? Muslims have dribbled into this country since then and one fairly large group (for example),Turkish immigrants in the late 1960s and early 1970s – what has happened to them? Like the USA, migrant settlement in this country (particularly since WWII) has been very successful with very little culture conflict. Perhaps social research on Muslim settlement in the past might show some interesting trends. As a settlement officer for the (then) Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, I cannot remember Turks having settlement difficulties, as more recent arrivals seem to be having. However, these people were sellected in good faith by departmental officers as suitable for permanent settlement and it is beholden on the Australian Government to support and protect them. About 1976 it was decided by the department to assist recently arrived Muslim communities with Imams to provide for their spiritual needs. These Imams were to be given temporary entry visas for twelve months and if the arrangement proved satisfactory the visas would be extened. As the department was treading new ground there was never any thought (at that time) to offer permanent residence to these clerics. As I understand, the position of the federal government today is to accept the sayings of Imams to a point where such utterances are contrary to law as it stands. In this situation they could be asked to leave the country and failing this they would be deported. Unfortuneately, if they have been given permanent residence and citizenship, moving them out becomes more difficult. The other side of the coin is what influence do the Imams have on their Muslim communities? It is a given that once in this country we have a responsibility to support and protect immigrants wherever they came from and for Muslims this could mean protection against the contrary views of some Imams. But we need to keep in mind that many of these people rely on Imams as their main source of information. But with low levels of literacy, (especially among women), the information given by Imams should not be contrary to the successful integration their people.
    Peter Rice

  2. We should not view Islam as simply another (false) religion, but as a subversive political ideology first and a religion second. As Robert Spencer says, “Whilst there are certainly peaceful and moderate moslems, there is no peaceful and moderate Islam.”

    This idea of the ‘secular’ or religiously neutral State is not only unachievable in reality (as no one is religiously neutral) but such a concept cannot even guarantee religious freedom anyway. Secularism is defenseless against Islam since the ‘secular’ definition of ‘tolerance’ provides an open door through which Islam can gain political dominance.

    The West needs to preserve a Christian foundation to its law and government. Religious freedom is best protected under such a system. How we preserve this Christian foundation is the difficult question.

    Ewan McDonald

  3. Maybe we should revive some older expressions, too.

    I’m thinking of the “Old World” and “New World” distinction.

    We readily describe the success of nations like Canada, the USA, New Zealand and Australia in coping with large-scale immigration, and we lament the failure of European nations on this point.

    Whilst I haven’t looked in detail, we might also notice the same problem to a lesser degree in Latin America where old European rivalries became entrenched along national lines.

    Is there something of an “accidental” success story in the New World where people originally migrated to escape Old World traditions and rivalries?

    Secondly, is there still a form of “Old World-view” clinging to the Middle Eastern Islamic nations, which leads almost automatically to a culture clash in the New World?

    And then thirdly, what have we forfeited of the “New World-view” which previously enabled us to absorb so many people groups without bursting out all over, but which is no longer present, as Peter Rice pointed out?

    John Angelico

  4. In recent days Fred Nile has introduced a bill to the NSW State parliament about this issue. I believe that he is most concerned about the face coverings.

    When it comes to the face coverings, I am interested to know what coverings any particular woman wore on her passage to Australia and through Australian customs and Immigration. The same question may be asked about the day they received their Australian citizenship, and stood to take the oath.

    Would I be wrong in assuming that of the women who want to cover their face in public now, many if not most or even all of them, have increased the extent of face covering since the day they arrived in Australia?

    If it is the case that their face covering has increased since that day, how can they successfully argue cultural or religious grounds that are benign?

    What of their intention to assimilate? And so on.

    Bruce Knowling

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